Stirling Prize winning practice Stanton Williams is at the top of its game; founder director Alan Stanton also happens to work from a wheelchair. He has a message: disability is no bar to success
The first time I visited Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge I was swept away. The smooth planes of limestone and concrete, languid stairs, light, sensuous soffits of the labs, embedded nooks, abundant planting, etched lines; it calls out to be touched. When, in 2004, a seemingly unpromising scheme for a new square alongside the Tower of London opened I expected very little, but in this space, amid the muck and clutter of central London, you could mentally freewheel or even take an ecstatic spin.
For almost 30 years Stanton Williams has been designing some of the most sublime and simply elegant places in the country, as evidenced by the Stirling Prize for the Sainsbury Laboratory and regular awards, this year for the Britten Pears Archive in Aldeburgh.
So I am a little embarrassed to be asking the practice’s director, Alan Stanton, to talk less about design and more about his personal career – particularly something that generally goes undiscussed: practising with limited mobility. It turns out I am not the only one. Other people’s embarrassment is something he has to face every day, and once he had got used to not being able to get around so easily it was one of the hardest things. ‘When you rock up in a wheelchair people are embarrassed and don’t know whether to help etc,’ he explains. ‘You learn to be assertive: it has made me larger than life for a shy person.’
As we settle into our discussion the first thing Stanton wants to do is set the parameters. ‘It would be nice if it was not a glorification of my career,’ he says. ‘It would be good if it reaches out to other people.’ For years he used crutches; now a wheelchair. He has never been a campaigner for disability rights. Although he has taken to the platform to discuss such access he has more often lectured on the practice’s work. He has never joined a special group (‘I don’t think one exists, we are probably all in denial’); and he barely talks about it with friends. ‘Piers Gough [of CZWG who uses a stick when walking] is a friend, but we never talk disability.’ Stanton, who has nothing to prove architecturally, does want to show that you can make a great career out of architecture, whatever the impediments.
To show how, we must go back to his own career. Out of the Architectural Association, Stanton spent a year with Norman Foster post Team 4 and trying to get to the US. Once at University of California, Los Angeles, on a fellowship taught by Archigram’s Ron Herron and Warren Chalk, he and other students wanted to make things at an architectural scale. ‘We got cheap materials and a fan and did air structures. We had an immediate reputation for doing crazy things.’ Chrysalis, as the amorphous group was known, was even commissioned for projects such as the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka Expo. Then in California, age 27, just after graduating, a viral infection got into Stanton’s spine. He could no longer use his legs.
Back in London for medical advice, he got a call from Richard Rogers to work on the Pompidou, a project he saw as like Chrysalis but with huge budgets and potential. Then the realisation hit that there was a building to design, starting with car parks and a basement. ‘It was tough, challenging, exciting.’
But not easy. ‘Paris was a difficult time,’ he says, less because of the reality of a major project, than because he was having to make major adjustments to his personal life, moving around on crutches. ‘I was not as quick or agile as I used to be, it was a bit of a struggle getting up and down stairs but I could do it. Getting a car modified was my saviour as I couldn’t walk long distances… but, especially when you’re young, you just keep going.’
In the following years he commuted to Paris regularly with his own practice, working on a gallery at La Villette Science Museum with Mike Dowd and collaborating with Renzo Piano. ‘It was the 8.28 at Heathrow’s Terminal 2,’ he says, not quite wistfully. He met Paul Williams in 1983 at the Tate (now Tate Britain): one wanted to do more architecture, the other exhibition design. Setting up as Stanton Williams they got to do both.
Young families and plenty of international commuting experience meant they both wanted to see if they could make practice work in the UK. From shops and exhibitions to visitors’ centres, galleries and public spaces they have peppered the country with great architecture. Could this UK-based approach be why their subtle, nuanced, contextual designs have not won them the same starchitecture status as the starker international projects of their contemporary David Chipperfield?
In disability terms, the world is a different place to the seventies, when Stanton was adjusting to crutches. ‘There has been hugely valuable legislation,’ he says, thinking of the National Theatre (which he was later to work on), completed in 1976 with no lift access to several foyer levels – ‘quite extraordinary... Like sustainability, it would be nice to think that access would just become part of good quality design, with care, thought, attention to detail and a generosity of space,’ he says.
Even though attitudes are changing, Stanton still experiences the ‘does he take sugar’ phenomena. Out with his wife Wendy it is she who will be asked ‘would he like to go through this door?’ When he shifted to a wheelchair five or six years ago, he found it liberating being able to go further but it was a big mental step. ‘I had to swallow my pride,’ he says. ‘You are the height of a child. The worst thing is drinks receptions and staring at people’s backsides. Those I dread.’ Then there was what clients might think. ‘In fact, people are very helpful,’ he says. ‘Though obviously you have to perform and do your job.’
His office now is a 50m long space, all on one level – much simpler to negotiate with 45 people and projects. Before going around the office he will ‘pre-think’ and gather everything that is needed. And he knows he is lucky now. ‘When I was started out as a young architect I was on my own, doing all my own typing and photocopying. Now I am in an office with a team and fantastic people around me.’ He is one of four design directors, each taking responsibility for individual projects while still work closely with each other.
‘Two big builders pick me up and whizz me to the top of the building. We have a very positive meeting afterwards’
Visiting sites is unavoidable. It is usually manageable, though there are places where Stanton has relied on colleagues climbing to the top to take photos. He clearly relishes the time he was lowered by crane to examine a hole in the ground or when he has been carried up a difficult flight of stairs. ‘People are amazingly helpful,’ he says. ‘Two big builders pick me up and whizz me to the top of the building. We have a very positive meeting afterwards.’
It is the sort of heart warming story you’d need to hear if you or your wheelchair-bound child was considering a career in architecture. Stanton’s disability extends only to his legs, but his advice is not to be deterred. ‘The great thing about architecture is its broad spectrum. You can be very specialised or general: there is a chance you can find that architecture will work for you, your limitations and allow you to play to your strengths.’ And there are fringe benefits, no London congestion charge and a blue badge – so every morning he drives through central London to the Islington office of Stanton Williams. Just turned 70 he still enjoys the challenges of new projects and is not planning to retire any time soon. Looking from the other end of the career spectrum, he says: ‘Anyone with a disability going into architecture needs to try and be confident, even if you have to fake it. You have to reach out to people.’